Posts Tagged ‘business writing’

What’s wrong with this message, one that goes out to WordPress bloggers thousands of times a day?

No, the answer is not “Jay P. Johnson has poor taste in blogs.” The problem involves agreement. Jay is one person, or singular in grammar lingo. Their is plural. The two words don’t agree.

Reaching agreement is hard in business and in life, and sometimes it’s even harder for writers to get nouns and pronouns to agree. Fortunately, many people miss agreement errors anyway, so no one may notice that you slipped up and wrote they instead of it. But grammar-savvy people all agree: Right is better.

The main problem with pronoun reference comes from a longstanding rule. For centuries, grammar books insisted that the gender of any indefinite subject was male. However, most modern employees would not want to risk the wrath of their female counterparts by writing this:

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

Obviously, business executives can be male or female, but technically, the pesky rule said to refer to them all as men. So people started indiscriminately using their to solve the problem. However, in many situations the word is incorrect.

Current grammar books suggest working around the rule to avoid sexism. Here are a few techniques:

1. Use plurals because plural references have no gender.

Good business executives should hone their computer skills.

2. Use both a masculine and feminine pronoun.

A good business executive should hone his or her computer skills.

3. Use a slash.

A good business executive should hone his/her computer skills.

This technique gets awkward, so use it sparingly. Another hybrid that’s popping up is s/he, which goes beyond awkward. Please avoid it so it doesn’t catch on and become acceptable!

4. Mix and match throughout the document.

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

A company president should remember her responsibilities to her employees.

The mix-and-match method is tricky. Some nonfiction books will use female references in one chapter and male references in the next in an attempt to be fair and consistent at the same time, but in the end this method will feel inconsistent at some level.

5. Rewrite the sentence.

Computer skills are vital for today’s business executive.

One singular sensation

Probably the most common violation of proper pronoun agreement is using the word they, a plural pronoun, to refer back to collective nouns. Collective nouns name a group acting as a single unit and are supposed to take singular pronouns:

The committee presented its findings.

The jury announced its verdict.

Because groups and corporations are run by many people, writers tend to think of those entities in terms of people, a plural concept, instead of the proper singular perspective:

WRONG: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of their business practices.

RIGHT: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of its business practices.

WRONG: Dunkin’ Donuts released their financial report.

RIGHT: Dunkin’ Donuts released its financial report.

Next time: How the Miami Heat upset the grammar world


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When you examine your writing to eliminate wordiness, your goal isn’t to create the shortest sentences possible; there is no “correct” length for a good sentence. If you need 30 words to make your point, use 30 words. But empty words slow sentences down and lessen their impact. If you can remove words without changing a sentence’s clarity, those words were deadwood.
Some wordy expressions are so common that writers use them without thinking. For example, you can write “A total of 12 employees attended the morning meeting,” and the sentence seems straightforward. But this sentence says the same thing in fewer words: “Twelve employees attended the morning meeting.”
Another example:

Committee members will update the board on a quarterly basis.
Committee members will update the board quarterly.

Deadwood often results from writers using two words that convey the same idea:

He has no prior experience in real estate.
He has no experience in real estate.

We will work with our affiliate organizations.
We will work with our affiliates.

The Finance Department works cooperatively with Public Relations on the annual report.
The Finance Department works with Public Relations on the annual report.

Our company will be the first in the state of Arizona to implement this program.
Our company will be the first in Arizona to implement this program.

And so on, and so on
Wordiness also results when writers are so enthusiastic about getting their point across that they try too hard to cover all the bases, using every word that pops into their minds to boast about the benefits of their current projects. If you look at the following examples, you’ll notice that each pair of words separated by and has a slightly different meaning, but one is enough to convey the idea:

Management was positive and receptive about the new plan.
The training will enhance our knowledge and skill in business writing.
The public relations campaign is designed to inform and educate the public about our environmental programs.

Other expressions

You can make quick fixes by replacing these common wordy expressions with the suggested words:
For the purpose of  >  to, for
In order to  >  to
At the present time  >  now, currently
In the near future  >  soon
Because of the fact that  >  because
Due to the fact that  >  because
In the event that  >  if
In a position to  >  can

Next time: Wordy constructions

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